30 December 2011

Books... about Books

In the last week I've finished Cornelia Funke's Inkheart and Alice Mattison's The Book Borrower.  Both were enjoyable reads.  They were both self-consciously ABOUT books, book lovers, even the activity of owning books (lots of them!). 

Inkheart is loaded with chapter-starting quotes from many of my best-loved books, as well as some that are on my reading list.  In Inkheart certain human beings have the capacity to read a character out of a book, into existence in the real world.  Elinor, a supporting (human) character, ponders that these read-out characters must miss their book world, in much the way that bookish people feel most comfortable living within their safe world of books. Hmmm.....

I like the concept, it's fun, and she cites a number of other books that tap the same process -- The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story, even Huck tells us in Huckleberry Finn that we've already "met" him if we've read Tom Sawyer -- but as some other reviewers have remarked, it takes Funke too long to get where she wants to go.  I think the book would be better, tighter, if it were about 1/3 shorter.  We're told that Meggie is 12 years old, but she doesn't seem 12.  More like 16.  I could stand less about Fenoglio's grandchildren.  Less about snakes and Basta's superstitions (I get it!).  Less about traveling around the Italian backwoods.

Don't judge a book by its cover,
but I just love this cover.
The Book Borrower was a surprising little read.  I really liked the cover (I dig hats).  Nice to chomp through a quick read in three evenings.  It did an especially great job at depicting women's friendships, how they are so folded among the craziness of kids and husbands and jobs (women's lives are different than men's!).  I loved the book-within-a-book structure, and that the first chapter jarred me as I got my bearings within this structure.  Like a train lurching forward.   I liked that Gussie/Jessie Lipkin aka Berry Cooper from the "inside book" ends up having a significant interaction with Toby Ruben, the main character from the outer narrative.  I appreciated the way Mattison described Ruben's grief at her best friend's death.  Lastly, I liked that the primary narrative had dialogue marked with --, but the narrative within used typical "quotation marks." A nice stylistic switch-up.

And what do you know, there was a notable reference to Anna Karenina! I would NOT have been able to appreciate this without having already read AK! There's a special circle of knowledge going on here among my most recent reads.

So... this is cool, this Post-Modernist self-reflexivity and all, but I'm ready for a book that, well, ISN'T about books.  Last night I started Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer.  It feels like a Horatio Alger tale, but I think there's a surprising twist coming.  Otherwise I'm just reading about a young, 19th century Gordon Gecko.

21 December 2011

Elf Workers of the World.... Unite!

"I should have stayed in dental school."
Just when I thought I was merrily spreading Christmas Cheer, I discover (thank you, Mother Jones) that by shopping online, I have contributed to worker exploitation and human suffering.  Right here in the the good ol' U S of A.

Pity the Elf Slaves of Online Shopping

I haven't bought books on Amazon.com, Borders.com (defunct) or BN.com (although as a former Borders customer, they are working on me... hard) in quite some time.  I think this will make me reconsider buying books online at ALL.  Viva the local bookstore!

19 December 2011

Hard to get into the Christmas spirit

Is it just me, or is it hard to feel Christmas-y this year?  We have the house decorated, many of the gifts purchased, the photo Christmas card underway (note - Goal for 2012: Several dozen GOOD photos with all three of us in the picture).  We have food, food, and more food (even Roast Beast!).  But I'm just not "feelin' it". ;-(

I find the darkness this time of year really hard.  I don't have "SAD" (although incidentally, I think that's an unfortunate acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder).

I can relate to Solstice even more than Christmas, or I can understand why early Christians would want to piggy-back on a holiday ("holy day") that says, "Don't fret, the sun will come back, things will grow again, and this too shall pass."  If we think life is difficult in a time of abundant food, electric light, and central heating (no matter how expensive we find these things to be), how much more frightening it would be to face a harsh, long Northern winter without them, knowing that there is no safety net.  For the poor of earlier eras, there was no food pantry, no heating assistance.  Those loving gifts of food (fruitcake?) might be the difference between survival... or not.

I think it's the 21st- Century expectations that stress me out.  I want everyone to be thrilled with their gifts.  I want the people I love to receive their Christmas cards before Dec 25 (although I don't think that will happen this year).  I want to WANT to go to church on Christmas Eve (even though I know it will be a hot, crowded, noisy mob scene).  I want my house to be clean so that I can feel good about people dropping by.  I want to NOT feel guilty about doing things for myself that help me, like knitting or reading.  I know I could be doing "something more productive," but maybe productivity is making sure that I feel okay, even at a time of year when that's challenging for me.

I'm not trying to hurry past Christmas, but I sure feel better once I get to January.  Then winter whizzes by faster than I can whiz down a ski slope.

09 December 2011

Anna Karenina - DONE!

Finished last night!  This one isn't just crossed off THIS list, but crossed off my "bucket list."

People ask me, "How do you like it?"  I think the truest answer is that I didn't really like it, but I certainly appreciated it.

In 2011, hardly anything is shocking anymore.  A trashy rich family is a household name (Kardashian), a congressman send photos of his "junk" to his girlfriend, a candidate for the presidency has a long and sordid history of harassing women but seems to think this is irrelevant to his fitness for office.  Female movie and music stars are, for the most part, anything but "ladylike."  The governor of California has children with his wife and his live-in housekeeper in the same year.

Flash to the 1870s. Tolstoy wrote A.K. in the Victorian era.  People of quality didn't even say "leg" because one's leg was too close to one's private parts, so instead they used euphemisms like "limb," and so forth.  But Tolstoy, whew!  Extra-marital affairs (by women!), and all the details of babies out of wedlock.  Women birthing their babies, women breastfeeding their babies.  And in Part Six, there's some mysterious (and particularly wicked) revelation from Anna to Dolly that because of her terribly difficult delivery of Vronsky's daughter, she should not have any more children, and the method by which she is preventing this is depicted like this (for real): .......................................................................................................................................................................................................................

What does that mean???  Tolstoy wants us to use our imagination. "This discovery, which suddenly explained for her all those formerly incomprehensible families with only one or two children, called up in her so many thoughts, reflections, and contradictory feelings that she was unable to say anything and only looke at Anna with wide-eyed astonishment." (p.637)  IMHO, it was either birth control or oral sex.  The horror!

Tolstoy gives us "real life" in an era when people didn't even admit to having bodies. Salacious reality.

The book is worth wading through to get to Part Seven. Anna's inner monologue is so genuine, worthy of 20th century writing of the inner mind. She's having a mental breakdown, possibly because of her personal guilt, her jealousy and paranoia, or maybe because of her opium addiction (I believe the latter is likely the biggest neurological problem).  The episodes on trains (and, sadly, UNDER them) become the structural story arc.  Trains must have been something of a fabulous novelty to 19th century Russians.

I had no idea that the Russian upper crust spoke so much French.  Even more than Russian, it seems.

Part Eight is a bit of a let down (although anything would be after amazing Part Seven).  Tolstoy is trying to make some sense of the tragedy of Anna & Vronsky.  In this case, why bad things happen to bad people.  Levin has a mystical revelation: that we must put our needs last and live "by the soul," for God.  It's as though it's BECAUSE Anna & Vronsky didn't do this that their lives follow the path ending in tragedy.  Now, maybe that's so.  Maybe because they pursued a carpe diem attitude that everything unraveled.  But I didn't like how Tolstoy boiled the whole epic down to a morality play.  Life is a lot more complicated than that.  And Tolstoy had done a darn good job at depicting life.  Real life, warts and all.  In Part Eight, he folds.  Bleh.

Excellent translation.  I had tried to read a different edition of A.K. a few years ago and stalled out.  If you're going to read A.K., I recommend this (award-winning) translation.
If I never read another long Russian name (with "patronymic" and all: Darya Alexandrovna, Stepan Arkadyich, Agafya Mikhailovna) it'll be okay with me.

Too much sadness, these last two books. 

Next up, Cornelia Funke's Inkheart.  I saw the cute movie a few years ago.  Liked it, and like most tales, I expect the book will be even better. 

At any rate, I'm quite hopeful there'll be less suicide.

08 December 2011

"Hey girl - I like the library too."

If you haven't discovered the Rabbit Hole that is Pinterest yet, well, don't come crying to me when you do, and you forget to do stuff like bathe, talk to your family, go to work, eat.  Because you're too involved with Pinterest.  It could happen.

I found this little gem on Pinterest last night: "Hey Girl. I like the library too."

Oh my heavens.  Drop-dead gorgeous men, who talk intelligently about books?  I'll try to keep my clothes on.

07 December 2011

A community saves a bookstore

I just LOVE this story: RiverRun Bookstore

Besides so many book lovers pitching in to help keep it afloat financially (amazing, really) I love that a big group of Portsmouth people planned to form a "bucket brigade" to transfer all the books from the old space to the new one.  I'd love to find out how that went!  Anyone here know?

29 November 2011

Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day

DS may not see this as an especially festive event, but I think it's just plain AWESOME! 

I can never truly browse to my delight with DS in tow.  I'm racing to beat the inevitable, whiny, "Moooom, can we pleeeeease go now????  How much loooonger???"  Complete with drooping body and rolling eyes.  And this is a kid who doesn't even hate reading.

But in this case, bookstores are doing cool stuff to celebrate.  For example, Longfellow Books is giving away a book (up to $10.00) to every kid who visits on Saturday!  This might even entice my little guy.

Enjoy downtown, buy local, and check out Longfellow!

21 November 2011

This is what happens when I don't read my email...

Andre Dubus III gave a reading at one of my favorite bookstores three weeks ago, and I was too swamped to notice the email announcing it!  Lookee here: Andre Dubus III Townie at Longfellow Books . OMG.  And here I had JUST finished BLOGGING about him, and what is likely his best-known book.

Oh, I am SO kicking myself. ;-(

I guess I can console myself with knowing that I definitely will not miss Tolstoy giving a reading any time soon, right?

18 November 2011

Anna Karenina, Parts 3 and 4

Levin can't make up his mind... does he love farming or loathe it?  Are the peasants shiftless, or just misdirected?  Does he want to be with Kitty, or is he too proud/shy to have contact with her again?  Is he traditional?  Progressive?  I think that Levin is like many of us: complicated.  Changeable.  He'd like the world to be in black & white, but like it or not, it's in Technicolor.

And Anna.  Anna, Anna, Anna.  Yep, your life is a wreck.  Your lover knocked you up, you're living this estranged life from your husband, but still with him in the house.  For the sake of propriety, or society, or the servants, or most of all your son, although we don't see much contact between the two of you.  Where is this Seryozha?

Sometimes it's a little tough to know exactly what's going on (like, how pregnant IS she?) because Tolstoy is so Victorian about it.  She's crocheting something with white yarn, so I think the implication is that she's "showing."

For the Inquiring Mind

Want to play along at home?  Here's my list, alphabetized. 
(Yeah, I'm that girl.)

Abbott, Edwin A., Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart
Anonymous, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights
Baldwin, James, Notes of a Native Son
Bohjalian, Chris, Midwives
Bowles, Paul, The Sheltering Sky
Bushnell, Candace, Sex and the City
Cleave, Chris, Little Bee
Cornwell, Bernard, The Last Kingdom
Crafts, Hannah (edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr), The Bondswoman’s Narrative
Crowley, John, Little, Big
DeLillo, Don, White Noise
Dubus, Andre III, House of Sand and Fog
Dunn, Katherine, Geek Love
Dunn, Mark, Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters
Edwards, Kim, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
Enger, Leif, Peace Like a River
Erdrich, Louise, Love Medicine
Eugenides, Jeffrey, The Virgin Suicides
Ferrucci, Franco, The Life of God (as Told by Himself)
Foer, Jonathan Safran, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Funke, Cornelia, Inkheart
Garland, Alex, The Beach
Gordon, Mary, Spending
Harrigan, Stephen, The Gates of the Alamo
Hazzard, Shirley, The Great Fire
Hulme, Keri, The Bone People
Hurston, Zora Neale, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ishiguro, Kasuo, The Remains of the Day
Johnson, Charles, Middle Passage
Keller, Nora Okja, Comfort Woman
MacDonald, Ann-Marie, Fall on Your Knees
Mattison, Alice, The Book Borrower
Maugham, Somerset, The Painted Veil
McBride, Jame, Miracle at St. Anna
McCann, Colum, Let the Great World Spin
McEwan, Ian, The Comfort of Strangers
Millhauser, Steven, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
Morrison, Toni, The Bluest Eye
O’Brien, Tim, In the Lake of the Woods
O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried
O’Connor, Flannery, Wise Blood
Oates, Joyce Carol, Expensive People
Ondaatje, Michael, The English Patient
Paolini, Christopher, Eragon
Pearl, Matthew, The Poe Shadow
Proulx, E. Annie, Accordion Crimes
Randall, Alice, The Wind Done Gone
Roth, Philip, American Pastoral
Roth, Philip, The Plot Against America
Roy, Arundhati, The God of Small Things
Rushdie, Salman, The Enchantress of Florence
Russo, Richard, Empire Falls
Sapphire, Push
Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader
See, Lisa, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Shaffer, Mary Ann & Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Shteyngart, Gary, Absurdistan
Strout, Elizabeth, Olive Kitteridge
Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina
Wangerin, Walter, J, The Book of the Dun Cow
Wharton, Edith, The House of Mirth
Whitehead, Colson, The Intuitionist
Xingjian, Gao,  Soul Mountain
Zola, Emile, Nana

Barnet, Sylvan, A Short Guide to Writing About Literature
Birkerts, Sven, The Gutenberg Elegies
Bryson, Bill, A Walk in the Woods
Capote, Truman, In Cold Blood
Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Ehrenreich, Barbara, Nickel and Dimed
Grier, Katherine C., Pets in America: A History
Honoré, Carl, In Praise of Slowness
Kenyon, Olga, 800 Years of Women’s Letters
Kurlansky, Mark, Salt: A World History
Larson, Erik, The Devil in the White City
Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Pollan, Michael, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Schumacher, E.F., Small is Beautiful
Truss, Lynne, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, A Midwife’s Tale
Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States

10 November 2011

Anna Karenina Part 2

Holy cow, this thing is a tome. Now I know why I haven't tackled it yet. Tonight DS said he's surprised that I'm finding it overwhelming... "How did you feel the first time you read it?"

"The first time? Honey, this IS the first time."

He thought I'd read every book in our home. Maybe every book EVER. I suppose I'm now just a mere mortal.

Analogy: Frou Frou (the horse) is to Anna as a broken back is to a broken life. Frou Frou WANTS to race. Anna WANTS to have a more inspiring relationship than that which she has (or doesn't have) with her insufferable husband. Both Anna and Frou Frou are described as fluttering birds within pages of each other. And Vronsky is the agent of both their suffering. Neither is done with malice; he adores both his mistress and his horse. But both are vulnerable... to him.

Levin: "Why should I worry about medical centers that I'll never use, or schools I'll never send my children to, that the peasants don't want to send their children to either, and in which I have no firm belief that they ought to send them?" (p. 244). Screams of Libertarianism. Ron Paul could have said that yesterday. "I will always defend with all my might those rights that touch on my interests" (p. 246). Yikes. Experts say that Levin is Tolstoy's autobiographical character. No socialism there, so far as I can tell.

So the Book Referees (DS and DH) have offered me a respite with a volume of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. I think I need a break from Russian angst.

01 November 2011

Anna Karenina, Part 1

It's a book in eight parts; there's no reason I have to wait until I'm finished to post about Anna Karenina.  I've started this book before, but not this translation, and not in a trade paperback size.  This edition is the award-winning Penguin Classic, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (husband and wife!).  SO much more readable.  It doesn't feel "antique," if feels alive and contemporary.  And I think that's just what Tolstoy wanted: for us to see this world, and the unique ways in which these families are unhappy.  For us to be able to relate to them.

I have a distinct image in my mind of Anna, but not of Vronsky.  Not yet.  Maybe it will come to me as time, and pages, go on.

30 October 2011

House of Sand and Fog

Finished last night.... late!  If you read my previous post, you've learned that it took me some time to warm up to House of Sand and Fog.  It didn't truly grip me until Part II.

What a sad tale.  Now I know why Dad said the film was so sad, and that I've sort of avoided this book. 

 Warning, spoiler alert. 

I don't typically cry while reading (although I OFTEN cry while watching films), but I had tears in my eyes for this ending....  the whole thing was a disaster for everyone involved. 

Shakespeare would have liked this.  It reminded me of Othello.  One small misunderstanding starts a chain of events that end in total tragedy. 

And even along the way, there are moments when the characters could have made different choices and had a different outcome.  Kathy and Lester doubt each other (and rightly so, it's a flash of passion, I don't think it would have lasted the "long haul).  Kathy gets blind drunk, Lester stews around and then invades the house.  Behrani could have gone for the gun when he had the opportunity instead of telling himself, "if I have to think about it, I'm too old." And on and on and on.

Reading Esmail's death really hurt.  I could feel the hurt, because I can't imagine how destroyed I would be if my only son were killed.

Despair over and over again.  Choices born from despair.
Kathy seems resigned to her fate in the end.  It's almost as though she's found a family that accepts her unconditionally - for the first time.

Soraya is the only survivor of the Behrani family.  This family of survivors - during the Iranian Revolution, of all things - is the victim of bureaucracy and rage and passion and impulsiveness in the end.  And her reaction is invisible to us.  We will never know.

So, no happy ending this time.

Or next time, it looks like.

Instead of sticking with the original plan of having DH pick the next book, I foolishly allowed 10-yr-old (sadistic?) DS to do so.  Next up: Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  I think he wants to see me suffer - not because of a plot, but through 823 pages.  My reaction to my next assignment, well, he thought that was just a laugh riot.

See you in the spring.....

24 October 2011

Progress: Ho Hum

This is how far I've gotten...

Well, an uninspired start to this project. I'm about a third of the way through House of Sand and Fog, and I'm not enjoying it. Not sure if it's bleak, or I'm too distracted with other things to devote time to reading. Maybe I'm avoiding it because the characters make me feel unhappy. No good can come of this situation.

I'll soldier on.

17 October 2011

My own assignment

If nothing has clued you in yet, I'm a book fiend.  I read about fifty books each year.  I've challenged myself to read this:

Yep, all these books (well, except for the dictionary and thesaurus on top - that would be silly ;-).  For the element of surprise, I've asked my husband to select (assign?) the books to me.  (I don't think there'll be any science to it, probably something like the first one he grabs.)

None of these are brand new.  In fact, none of them were even purchased new.  ALL of them were gotten "frugally," at GoodWill (the GoodWill on the South Portland/Scarborough line has a CRAZY good book section) or at used book stores or library sales.  My financial investment is minimal, my emotional investment is significant.

So don't expect any hot-off-the-presses reviews, but I'll post about each one as I finish.  It'll keep me on task.  And it's good for me to write about literature.  I used to do it well; maybe I can still muster up mediocre.

Book #1: Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog.  I've had this copy for some time, and I've NOT watched the film (because I also have a personal rule that I need to read the book FIRST).  But when the film was in theatres, my parents saw it, and Dad remarked, "What a sad, sad movie."  Very uncharacteristic for him to be emotional about a film.

At the end of House of Sand and Fog I'll let you know if I'm drenched in tears.  It could happen.

11 October 2011

Book Lovers Unite!

I might have missed out on the last gasp of summer weather, but my geeky self had a ball on Saturday as I helped sort and organize The Glacier, the fond term for the more than 20,000 donated books stored over the course of each year for the Annual Friends of the South Portland Public Library Used Book Sale.

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool book lover, and a sucker for used books.  Maybe it's my Yankee frugality, or my tree-hugging spirit of reduce-reuse-recycle, but I just can't bring myself to spend $25 on a retail book, when I know if I wait a couple of years I can scoop up the same book for two bucks at a sale that benefits a good cause.  How do I wait it out?  By browsing through the hundreds of books (maybe a thousand?) awaiting me at home (I know, there's probably a diagnosis here, but it's not Hoarders or anything.  Really, it's not).  My dear husband insists we could insulate our house with our books, and I think top of his list of "Why I Never Want to Move to a New House" is the spectre of hauling all my beloved books (and probably risking a back injury in the process).  Was I sad when Borders went belly up?  Of course, but mostly because it was the demise of the last retail location in Greater Portland where you could hang around well past 9pm, coffee in hand, and browse through.... books!  Nirvana!

This ugly duckling found her swans on Saturday.  Not just one, but a whole room of busy, book-loving people just like me.  Whee!

Dave on the move.  The children's books are still being arranged.
And I met Dave Kirkwood, the Angel of The Glacier.  Several times a week, ALL through the year, Dave processes the books donated at the South Portland Library into categories, which he then carefully boxes up and adds to The Glacier, a veritable pyramid of boxes the size of a small warehouse.  It's astonishing.  Dave quietly devotes this care and time, and then is the cheerful commandant of Sorting Day, hauling trolley after trolley of boxed books, patiently directly volunteers as we ask him, for the umpteenth time, "Um, Dave, what do you want me to work on next?"  He's amazing.

At the end of the day, I was tired, but excited.  I managed to hold down my purchases to a mere two full cardboard boxes of books.  Dave loaded the boxes onto a dolly and wheeled them out to my car (awww).  As we chatted on the way, I said I looked forward to seeing him next weekend for Cleanup Day.  He replied, "Oh, well, I won't be there this year for Cleanup.  I feel bad about it, but after a lot of thought, I've decided to go to my 60th high school reunion."  60 years!  Dave, you rock.

Can't find anything here?  Try the fiction room across the hall.
The book sale starts today and lasts til Saturday.  You can come in today if you are a "Friend" of the South Portland Library (a small donation, and well worth it, IMHO.)  And I promise I won't shop from your stash.